Photo by Dewang Gupta on Unsplash

Very Strict in Hand and Face

We enter in a line through the broken front door. Five women, very high-pitched, some braver than others.

My grandmother swings the door back and forth. The hinges dangle loosely. “They broke the door!” she complains.

“They saved your life, mom,” says my aunt.

I learn that fireman break down doors because they don’t have keys.

The power has been cut and the room is dark. A small ray of sunshine enters through a shattered picture window. Outside it is warm and sunny. Inside, it is cold.

Everything is a mess. I am unsure where to place my feet. I cling to my mom.

The smell of house-fire is strong. It smells like burned things that you cannot eat: charred fabric, plastic, wood.

My grandmother watches her step as she moves slowly into the living room. We follow her in but stay in a tight group, a huddle of penguins. She pauses after a few steps to assess the scene.

My mother and her sisters make little comments about what they see. “Look at this,” they say, “Oh my goodness.”

My grandmother comes to quick conclusions and moves on. She walks to the master bedroom, stepping over the debris as if it were toys on the floor.

The rest of us are cautious. We step around the room as if we were surrounded by knives.

Maybe my grandmother is confident because she was in this fire and she feels a part of it. Like she was making the sauce, but had to turned off the burner to run to the store for a missing ingredient, and now she has returned to finish the dish.

Maybe she is confident because this is her way.

Maybe the end of her living room is not the worst she has seen.

Maybe she is using brute force to open the jar.

She doesn’t take the time to explain to me what is happening. I am ignored.

My mother and her sisters become more brave and move into other rooms. They head to the kitchen and dinning room, the bathroom, a bedroom. I stay in the living room next to the green leather armchair.

Before the fire, I would climb this chair to reach a glass dish full of Hersey Kisses. Nobody ever sits in this chair. It faces away from the TV.

When I walk, my sandals crunch down on broken and burned bits of the unknown.

“Be careful!” my mother warns. I am not sure why we are here. What am I supposed to do? I feel cold. It was a mistake to wear these shoes. I worry about my toes. It feels unsafe to expose them. I wish I had worn pants and a long sleeved shirt.

My grandparents used to live here. A small townhouse inside a sprawling complex of manicured lawns and curved sidewalks. Each one story unit painted a trendy shade of creamy ecru and trimmed in dark-brown. It dark and shady, with north-facing windows.

Outside, small, fenced-in patios provide privacy and shade. My grandmother likes to keep hers full of potted plants and small statues.

She fancies herself a modern woman. Instead of herbs and fruits, she cultivates subtropical ferns and herbaceous evergreens with big, waxy leaves. She plants them in pots and places them on stands, tucks them into nooks, places them on shelves. Sometimes she encircles them with small statues, mini-succulents or orchids.

Inside, a collection of shy violets grow beneath a dark window in the dinning room. I must be careful around these plants. They are sensitive. I am not allowed to touch them. I pour in too much water and it spills on the tray.

I have more freedom on the patio. I am allowed to explore the plants and I treat them like friends. My favorite lives on a stand in a western corner. It has long, spindly vines that dangle towards the ground. They are sturdy and stiff. Instead of leaves, it sprouts hard peas that you can pop with your fingers. I pinch them between my fingers until they burst, or fling them around the patio and watch them bounce like beads.

My grandparents live in this cool island, in the middle of the cement city of Tustin, at the southern end of the warm state of California.

We celebrate Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday. My aunt does the dishes in the small kitchen. She wears yellow rubber cloves and uses green soap. Her sisters make fun of her.

I spend the night and sleep in the spare bedroom. When my grandmother is busy cooking, I sneak into her bedroom and explore the contents of her vanity. There is a mirror for putting on makeup. One side makes your face big. You can use this side for close-up work. I don’t like this mirror. There are bright lights that make your face big and ugly.

My grandmother uses face powder. She keeps it in a small, metallic box that plays Fur Elise by Beethoven when you lift the lid. I love this box. It survives the fire. I have it on my dresser now. I took it from my grandmother’s dresser after she passed away.

“I gave that to her,” says my aunt who washes dishes in yellow gloves.

“Really?” I ask. “When?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” She says. This aunt is very reasonable. “I must have been a teenager at the time, so…maybe 1964.” There is still white powder in the round, golden box. This is what I have from my grandmother. This box and her kitchen pots.

My grandfather ignited the fire. One night in 1989, he soaked the couch with lighter fluid and lit it on fire with a match. Then, he walked into the bedroom where his wife lay sleeping, climbed on top of her, and laid down like a pile of stones.

My grandmother woke up when the smoke reached her nose. She heard the crackle of the fire and saw its light in the hall. Her husband was on top of her. She tried to get up, but he held her down. She struggled. He tightened his grip. He whispered in her ear.

The fire grew bigger and the flames escaped through the windows.

A neighbor awoke and feared for her life. She called 911. Fireman arrived. There were sirens and lights. Hoses were brought out by men in bulky fireproof coats and protective helmets.

The firemen broke into the front door with a heavy ax.

My grandmother heard them in the living room. She listened to the water and its spray. Her lungs ached.

My grandfather heard the firemen too. Together, they listened to the shouts of the men. When my grandfather heard the fireman reach the hall, he relaxed his grip and surrendered. My grandmother yelled meekly with a blackened throat.

The firemen put out the fire in a colossal column of water. The living room sizzled and popped. Steam rose from the carpets. Smoke crawled into the kitchen.

My grandparents were carried to the hospital in an ambulance. They were treated for smoke inhalation and after a few days, released.

My grandmother came to live with us. She had nowhere else to go. She slept in a twin bed my mother placed for her in my father’s study. I have no memory of this, but my mother assures me she came to our house after the fire.

My grandfather did not come home. He was sent to the psychiatric ward of a Veteran’s hospital. He lived there the rest of his life, which was only a few more months. He jumped to his death from the second story of a metal stairwell.

“Look at this!” my mother exclaims from the hall. She is standing near the kitchen. The thermostat for the HVAC unit has melted like an icicle. It looks like a special effect from a movie: plastic ice. I walk over to get a better look. I step on black wreckage to get to where my mother is standing. We look at the thermostat together. I touch it. It is hard. “Wow.” I say. “I know,” she says, “Isn’t that interesting?”

The bedroom never caught fire but the living room is toast. It is clear even to a ten-year-old that the fire started here, on the couch. The arm-rests are large pieces of burnt wood; the interior a mass of kinky wire.

A nearby armchair is horribly disfigured. My grandfather’s favorite chair. A coffee table once covered in handmade lace has burned to the ground.

The knobs of the TV have melted.

“I want to salvage the books!” my grandmother says as she walks past in a brisk clip.

We dutifully pull the books off the shelf and place them in boxes.

I have my grandmother’s copy of The Joy of Cooking. The outside is stained black and a puff of smoke expels from its pages when you crack its spine. I consult its pages for oven temperature and cooking duration when I roast meat, or when I forget the ratios for quick tomato soup.

My grandmother’s voice was lyrical and firm. Her native tongue was Sicilian. There are little things that escape her mouth that tell you she has a mother-tongue. “Look at the hands,” she says when we pass by a robot while in line at Disneyland.

When she calls your name it sounds like a command, as if she is conjugating the verb within the vowels of your name.

She never spoke to me directly about the fire, except to note items that were saved. “That came from the fire,” she would say about a book or a brightly polished silver spoon.

A table-lamp I now have in my living room came from the fire. It came from her bedroom. It used to have a mate- two identical lamps that sat on the nightstands on each side of the bed. I wonder with a shiver if I have the lamp from her side of the bed, or the one from the other side.

I have no memory of my grandfather’s voice. He seldom spoke. It is possible that I heard him once at Christmas. He shook a small box wrapped in red paper and declared, “It sounds like socks.” This caused the room to erupt in nervous laughter.

I did not laugh. Maybe I didn’t get the joke. Or maybe I was the only one that knew it wasn’t funny.

I felt a kindred allegiance to my grandfather. It was a sad joke and no one should have laughed. Like him, I cracked sad jokes that weren’t funny, because like him, I was sad.

It is ridiculous to think that I knew more of my grandfather than his wife. My grandmother was smart and liked to read. I contemplate my own marriage with all of its complexities and try to imagine my grandparents having the same, but I cannot. I see them only as a man ignored and a very strict woman.

My grandmother persists in memory. I hear her voice when I pass the gardenia bush in the morning. I hear her behind me in the kitchen when I pull down the big pot.

My grandfather is a stone in the garden. Silent and hunched.

I thought more of him when I tried to kill myself, like he did.

In group therapy at the hospital we are talking about homicidal tendencies. “I’ve been it all,” says a lanky homeless woman with red hair, “Suicidal, homicidal, you name it.” I think about my grandfather.

“I am a vet” says a man in his fifties. I think about my grandfather.

“You lived through this once before,” I tell my mother, thinking of my grandfather. “You should be better at this.”

She looks at me and says nothing. She is frightened. Her eyes squint and she shakes her head.

I give up.

I heal myself.

My grandmother’s hands are delicate and long, with narrow fingernails that look handsome when filed.

My hands are bulky and my finger nails are squat. I have my grandfather’s hands. We speak silently to each other when I hold my daughter’s hand or curl a fitted-sheet around the corer of my bed. I hear him looking at me when I plunge my knuckles into soapy water. I feel his presence on rainy days.

I write about marriage, motherhood, existence, nature, and other invisible things. Visit me on Instagram.com/@jzkrebsbach. Read more on jzkrebsbach.com.

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